A Common Language
Ron Capps Served in Rwanda, Darfur, Kosovo, Eastern Congo, Afghanistan, and Iraq. When He Got Back, Writing Was the Only Thing That Could Truly Bring Him Home Again
It took Ron Capps all morning, but he was finally ready. He finished his reports, borrowed a pistol, and drove out of town into the Sudanese desert. When he found a low-rise with a commanding view of the red-tinged sand dunes, he parked and opened a beer.
For an hour, he sat drinking and staring at the sand, thinking about what to do next. He was back in Darfur on a nine-month contract, this time with the State Department, documenting the genocide in the western part of Sudan. The Sudanese government rebels had agreed to a cease-fire after millions had fled their homes, after thousands had been murdered, and after hundreds of villages had been destroyed, but the peace was tenuous and the fighting kept going.
It was Capps’s second time in Darfur, and he’d thought he’d be OK with all this death again. He had whiskey, and some leftover Prozac that an army psychiatrist had given him a few years before. But his nightmares had come back, more intense than ever, and he’d started drinking to get his mind off all the massacres and misery he had seen.
It seemed so pointless, writing reports that would be read by only a few people before they were filed away. What good are they if they can’t even protect anyone? he asked himself again and again. It had gotten so bad that he couldn’t sleep: he was always on edge, always in fear that he would be haunted by all the people he couldn’t save in all the combat zones he had visited. It got to the point where he thought it’d be better if he called it quits.
He cocked the 9 mm and moved the selector switch off SAFE to SEMI.
This wasn’t supposed to happen to a guy like Capps. He was a career State Department officer and an army reservist working intelligence. He was the guy everyone envied—or at least those who didn’t know any better. He had been to Kosovo for the ethnic cleansing, Eastern Congo for the so-called cease-fire, Afghanistan, and then Iraq. He had been attached to military special-operations units and picked up a couple Bronze Stars along the way. Any god-awful place, he’d visit. He loved the rush, loved getting the call and getting sent into the mix before it even hit the papers.
This wasn’t the end he’d envisioned decades ago. When he joined the military, at twenty-five, he was in college, making a living as a singer and guitar player, mostly doing dinner theater, his music career floundering. The best choice, as he saw it, was to enlist in the Virginia National Guard and go on active duty as soon as he was done with school. He became a cavalry officer and then a military-intelligence officer, serving on active duty for nine years before becoming a reservist; he joined the State Department in the early 1990s.
Over the next decade, Capps investigated atrocities in central Africa and the Balkans. In the late 1990s, he was sent as a diplomatic observer to document war crimes between the Kosovo Liberation Army guerrillas and the Serbian Army and police, and to prevent more war crimes from happening—but without guns or the authority to relocate refugees, he and his team couldn’t do much more than write reports.
One day in 1998, at a village near KLA territory, Capps and his team attended a Kosovar funeral, hoping to prevent attacks by Serbian soldiers in the surrounding hills. The day before, Serbs had lobbed mortars into town, killing six women and one child and wounding eleven others. Capps had counted the bodies and verified the cause of death. It wasn’t difficult: most of their bodies had been blown apart. As he was leaving, a crowd gathered around his truck, and a woman begged him to take her baby. Capps had to tell her he couldn’t and that the Red Cross would evacuate them later that day, though he doubted they would. He felt powerless that he could do little beyond record the details.
Somehow he kept himself together over the next two years. Two people on his team did not: one fell apart after documenting a gruesome war crime; the other returned home, too exhausted to work.
Later State Department tours took Capps to Rwanda, Iraq, and Sudan. Still an army reservist, he was activated for duty as an intelligence officer in Sudan, and with a paratrooper unit to Afghanistan, where he led more than one hundred people as a director of military human-intelligence operations. After three months, when the nightmares were keeping him up at night, when the panic attacks would make him start shaking at his desk, and when the only respite was a bunker where he could curl up in a ball and cry from exhaustion, he knew he couldn’t keep going.
He found a psychiatrist at the base and, for the first time in years, told someone about his misery. The doctor diagnosed him with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and told him he needed counseling and medication. Although either could make him lose his top-secret security clearance, Capps and the psychiatrist worked out a deal to keep the visits off his medical records. He kept his diagnosis secret, telling only his deputy, so she could double-check his work and make sure his decisions didn’t jeopardize the lives of the soldiers on his team.
Over the next two years, he was deployed to Iraq, then three more times to Sudan. As long as the Prozac and whiskey held out, he could deal with the carnage and mayhem. But three months into his third Sudanese tour, he felt so worn-out that he thought he’d check out for good.
All he had to do was put the barrel into his mouth and softly press back on the trigger, and it would be done.
His phone began to ring. The screen flashed with his wife’s number. He picked up. She wanted to know if he was OK. He lied.
After his wife’s call, he didn’t have it in him to put the gun back into his mouth. The next day, he called the department’s doctor in Nairobi and asked to be sent home.
Capps got a desk job in Washington, DC, with the State Department, and tried to figure out what had gone wrong. He knew he couldn’t take another deployment—not emotionally, not physically. So after twenty-five years, he resigned from the State Department and retired from the army. A few months later, he got divorced.
His thoughts kept returning to the notebooks he had kept during his deployments, and in particular to the writing he had done in Afghanistan when he was first diagnosed with PTSD. Writing had always given Capps joy, and he thought he could do something with the body of work he had built up over the last decade. Maybe if he got a master’s of fine arts in creative writing, he could get his work published and figure out what to do next. So he enrolled.
In class at Johns Hopkins, he wrote about what he knew best: the killing fields. His classmates encouraged him, pushing him to break the tough-guy code and write about his battle with PTSD, and his moral failure, as he saw it, to save all those killed where he had served.
Writing helped Capps gain control of his mind, and brought stability to his life. The more he wrote about his struggles, the more manageable they became. He was no longer sobbing in the middle of the day or paralyzed by flashbacks. If writing could do this for him, he thought, it might do the same for other veterans.
In 2011, Capps formed the Veterans Writing Project, in Washington, DC, to host free writing workshops for veterans, active-duty soldiers, and their families to help them control their own PTSD or aid their family members who have it. The group hosts readings, weekend retreats, and classes at places like George Washington University and the Writer’s Center. “I founded the [VWP] because I wanted to be able to use the things I was learning in graduate school, the things I learned as a working writer, and give away all that knowledge to others for their own struggles,” Capps told me when we met in 2012. “This is the thing I could do.”
The program has flourished since its modest start, with Capps now leading seminars around the country in concert with colleges, literary festivals, and nonprofits like the Wounded Warrior Project and the Association of the United States Army. Around 1,500 veterans and their family members have taken his course. Capps also wrote and self-published a writing manual, Writing War: A Guide to Telling Your Own Story, to help veterans learn how to pen their experiences, and founded a literary journal, O-Dark-Thirty, that publishes their writing. As Capps says, “I want to be the Johnny Appleseed of vet writing.”
A senior director at the National Endowment for the Arts heard about the VWP and, in January 2012, asked Capps to craft and lead a yearlong experimental-writing program for veterans struggling with psychological problems and traumatic brain injuries who have not responded to conventional therapies. Three years ago, Capps kicked off the workshop at the National Intrepid Center of Excellence (NICoE), the Department of Defense’s premiere research and treatment facility for PTSD, at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. He started teaching at the Washington, DC, VA Center last year, and expects the program will spread to other hospitals—if funding can be found.
Despite all the press coverage of veterans and their ailments, money can still be difficult to raise. Finding enough to keep the Veterans Writing Project going has been a struggle since its founding, and Capps has had to rely on volunteers and individual sponsors to keep classes free. University funding fell through last year, and he decided a staff teaching position wouldn’t be forthcoming and found a full-time job. “Most people seem to get what we’re trying to do, so it’s not hard to find places to work—only ways to fund it,” Capps told me.
When I first met Capps, at one of his free writing workshops in DC three years ago, he was magnetic and charismatic, even funny. He told jokes, made fun of himself, and paced the room in complete command of his audience, a trait he must have picked up from his days in dinner theater. He was impossible not to watch. No mention was made of his suicide attempt, nor of his battles with PTSD; I wouldn’t have known he was injured. He made it clear that the workshop was about writing and forming a community of veteran writers; it was not a therapy session. “If you need to go talk to someone, you should,” he said. “I’m not a doctor; I have an English degree.”
It wasn’t until a few weeks later that I heard about his suicide attempt. I was floored, and couldn’t square the story with the confident, self-assured man I had met. Intrigued, I approached Capps about writing a story on him and, to my surprise, he quickly agreed. We decided to meet at his house in suburban DC before one of the workshops he teaches weekly on Capitol Hill.
Capps left nothing to chance in arranging our meeting. He gave detailed instructions that included where I should exit the subway station, where to turn, where I should stand, and where he would be. Precise instructions are a way for him to tamp down his anxiety and avoid surprises when he’s moving around the city. When I emerged from the station, there he was, as promised, in his VW Jetta. He drove quickly to Chevy Chase, pulling up in front of a 1930s stone house with a manicured lawn and a wide porch. The house was decorated with Craftsman furniture and painted in rich earth tones. Unlike most veterans’ homes, there were no plaques, no medals, and no photos of his military accomplishments. Instead, his wedding vows, written in calligraphy, dominated his living-room wall. His dog, Harry, greeted us at the door and padded along behind us. His second wife, Carol, whom he met and married a few years after his divorce, was at work.
I settled into a leather armchair and asked Capps to talk about himself and his background. He gave me a long look and told me he would be more open than usual. “I trust you,” he said, “because you’re a fellow veteran.”
My stomach tightened.
Veteran status cuts both ways. Because I’m an army veteran, other vets often tell me things they wouldn’t tell those who haven’t served. It is a privilege to be given this confidence, and yet I’m filled with an overwhelming obligation to get their stories right. Although I’m a longtime reporter, writing about veterans has been the hardest subject for me to cover, because their stories are so nuanced, and reporters, most of whom have never served in the military and have no connection with the armed services, frequently get their stories wrong and paint them as one-dimensional lunatics. I wanted to get Capps’s story right and not come off as a voyeur. There was some precedent for my concern: a month before our interview, Capps had spoken about his struggle with PTSD at the National Endowment for the Arts, which sponsors his NICoE seminar, and after his talk he told me he was destroyed for the rest of the day.
During our interview, Capps told me that before he was diagnosed with PTSD, he didn’t know why he was crippled with anxiety. If he got lost trying to find a new office at the State Department, he’d start trembling and become confused because he didn’t know what to do or what to expect. Even on the way to his final PTSD treatment at a VA hospital, a place he had visited every two weeks for a year, anxiety overwhelmed him so much that he couldn’t think beyond the next traffic light, and he lost his way. He visits new places first during off hours and can tolerate crowds only with his wife by his side. If he stays too long in a crowd, he feels a “vague, undefined terror.” His guts wrench, his breathing becomes erratic, and his vision starts to close in. If he doesn’t leave, he ends up “shaking, crying, and curled up almost in a ball, not functioning.”
At this point in our hour-long interview, Capps excused himself to go to the bathroom. No water ran, no toilet flushed, and I knew our discussion had unnerved him. Minutes ticked by until the door opened, and Capps came out, sighing. It was clear he had gone too far with me. I didn’t press him.
Writing as a method of alleviating combat trauma is not new. For thousands of years, veterans have been examining their experiences through writing to better understand themselves and their place in society. Homer essentially created the genre of combat writing in The Iliad and The Odyssey. Erich Maria Remarque wrote about the horrors of World War I’s trench warfare in All Quiet on the Western Front; Joseph Heller explored his World War II experiences in Catch-22; Tim O’Brien penned The Things They Carried, about Vietnam; Anthony Swofford wrote Jarhead, about his stint in the Gulf War; Kevin Powers explored his Iraq deployment in The Yellow Birds; and my friend Phil Klay, from one of my writing classes, did the same in his fiction collection, Redeployment, which received a National Book Award in 2014.
Veterans’ writing has also informed psychiatrists and improved veterans’ medical care. When psychiatrist Dr. Jonathan Shay counseled Vietnam veterans at the Boston VA outpatient clinic in the 1980s and 1990s, it hit him that many of their experiences were duplicated exactly in Homer’s epics. His book Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character compares the experiences of soldiers in the Vietnam War to those depicted in the epic poems and explores how, regardless of era, behaviors like emotional numbing and a loss of trust have helped soldiers survive their experiences. His next book, Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming, tracks veterans’ acclimation to civilian life. Despite the passage of decades, Shay found that the Vietnam veterans he counseled continued to struggle with their wartime experiences, much like Odysseus did upon his return. Most suffered from what he called a “moral injury”: intense guilt over things they did during war that had violated their core beliefs. Many were still locked in combat mode, doing perimeter checks late at night to make sure their windows and doors were secure. They were hypervigilant—always sitting with their backs to walls, avoiding crowds, looking for emergency exits. They suffered from nightmares and flashbacks that usually involved tremendous guilt over the death of a friend or even an enemy combatant. Dr. Shay realized that veterans, isolated and without a sense of community in which they can share these burdens, can never truly return home from combat. “I came to the belief that a critical part of healing from combat trauma has to do with a process I think of as the communalization of experience, of being able to tell your story to people you’ve grown to trust and to see that they feel safe enough to believe and remember it,” said Dr. Shay. “The process somehow contributes a lot to coming home.”
Counselors now encourage soldiers and veterans to retell their stories until the memories no longer have power over them. Hundreds of scientific studies have shown that writing about trauma has a positive effect on health, bringing stress levels down and increasing brain-processing speed. Unlike trading war stories at a bar, the writing process compels veterans to dissect their experiences and understand the emotions behind them more fully. “Writing forces you to put an upsetting thing into a context or story. When we experience something and we can’t talk with someone about it, our minds replay the event,” said James Pennebaker, Regents Centennial Professor of Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, who researches the effect of writing on the brain. “Our minds are trying to find an explanation. Writing helps to cement an explanation. Once you have a label and an explanation, you can sleep, and function, better.” As Capps puts it, “When you’re creating art, it’s like putting a filter between you and the memory. The more you write, the less toxic [the memory] is. It frees you.”
Writing is helping some veterans better manage their injuries. James Saylor, a former army infantryman, met Capps while he was at Walter Reed for his fourth surgery after getting hit in a mortar attack in Afghanistan. Although he had a limp and bulging disks in his back and the right side of his face was paralyzed, his traumatic brain injury and PTSD were giving him more problems. His wife, Tiffany, heard of Capps and convinced Saylor to meet him. Although Saylor was skeptical that it would be a therapy session and he’d be forced to talk about his feelings, he went just to kill time.
Saylor grew to enjoy Capps’s writing classes and found that writing calmed him. Since his medical discharge and return home, he has kept writing whenever he needs an escape. It helps him vent about his time in Afghanistan and not have to burden or trouble his wife with what happened to him.
“It makes me feel better. It calms me down. It’s like talking to a therapist,” said Saylor, thirty-five. “You have to have an outlet somewhere or it’ll consume you too much.”
As an army veteran who has taken veterans’ writing classes across the country, I’ve seen many veterans begin a class feeling withdrawn and slowly start talking and writing. They muster the courage to read their stories aloud, hear others chime in with approving comments, and gradually start to trust their classmates understand them and won’t respond with nervous laughs and blank stares, as so often happens in civilian writing classes. This sense of community is key to building confidence. Without that sense of shared burden, veterans can never fully return home.
“Healing happens only in community, and it’s mainly a community of veterans, a circle of people you get to trust and understand your experience,” said Dr. Shay. “You can’t define what it means to be understood, but it sure as hell matters. The heavy lifting is done by and for the veterans. Time itself doesn’t heal.”
These writing classes gave me the nerve to write about my eight years in the military in a way I had never done before. As a reporter, I’ve been trained to keep myself and my emotions out of my stories, and I find it difficult to discuss anything personal publicly. After listening to enough stories, I decided to take a chance and write a personal essay for the New York Times about how out of place I felt with combat veterans, because I served during peacetime and missed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. By not seeing combat, it felt like I had missed out on a central experience in the military and that I wasn’t truly a veteran. The essay drew nearly a hundred comments, tweets, and emails from veterans of all eras echoing my sentiments; like me, many had not served either during a war or in a frontline unit. It made me realize that veterans understood my feelings in ways that civilians—many of whom labeled me a warmonger—never could.
Writing programs for soldiers and veterans are part of a constellation of alternative therapies that are often scattershot and hard to find. In some areas of the country, there is a wide variety—ranging from painting to horseback riding to kayaking—and in others, particularly rural areas, there are none. Many alternative-therapy groups have been founded by veterans or their families to help share activities that have worked for them. Because these groups are typically small nonprofits, they rely on donations or fund-raising and usually offer their services only occasionally. In big cities there is often a duplication of efforts, and because groups are often unaware of each other, they don’t work together.
The varied and erratic nature of these therapies is replicated at the national level for medical treatment of veterans. Some regional VA offices need more than a year to process disability claims, while others take a few months. Some hospitals and clinics offer only talk therapy and prescription medications to veterans with mental-health problems, because they don’t have the staff, money, or time to offer alternative therapies to the overwhelming number of cases. It can take months to see a doctor or psychologist at a VA hospital, because there simply aren’t enough of them. While in 2013, the VA hired nearly three thousand new mental-health workers and support staff and nearly doubled its spending to whittle down the backlog, these efforts haven’t been sufficient to handle the increased claims. The VA recently expanded coverage for some ailments, like those associated with Agent Orange, leading to a flood of new claims and adding to the backlog. Medical advances have helped save more lives in Afghanistan and Iraq, but they have also led to more service members surviving catastrophic injuries. Over half of the nearly 2.7 million people who served in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are now veterans, and a large proportion of them have filed for benefits.
Long wait times have led some veterans to give up and tough it out by keeping quiet or turning to drugs and alcohol. Others complain that their counselors don’t listen and instead prescribe copious amounts of medications as a quick fix. Many veterans feel a lost sense of purpose after they leave the military, because they are now on their own, without a mission. Throw in a high jobless rate and the sense of isolation (only about 1 percent of the American population has served in the military), and suicide starts to feel like a real option. While suicides among active-duty troops declined in 2013 by 22 percent (down to 261), suicide among reservists and national-guard members rose 5 percent, to 213, the VA reported. Among veterans, it’s even worse. Every day, twenty-two veterans kill themselves.
With all the roadblocks to treatment, writing programs have caught on because they don’t require much investment to start. They are now sprinkled around the country, from Los Angeles, where Hollywood screenwriters work with former soldiers to craft thrillers, to New York, where local colleges host informal workshops. The classes, all of which are free, are also relatively inexpensive to run. Only a few, like the one at NYU, which former president John F. Kennedy’s family helped to found and finance, have outside support from foundations. Every Saturday since 2009, roughly fifteen Iraq and Afghanistan veterans meet to tear apart and discuss well-known literary works and to workshop their own pieces. Occasional guest writers, like E. L. Doctorow and Yusef Komunyakaa, attend. NYU started its program because there was “a sense that there was nothing for them and that it was important to give them a voice,” said Deborah Landau, director of NYU’s creative writing program.
One of the oldest groups in the country, Warrior Writers, has offered writing classes and multiday workshops and conferences around the country since 2007. The focus for the Philadelphia-based group of military veterans is less on publishing and more on creating an environment where veterans of any age feel comfortable discussing anything from their military service to family problems. Their classes, unlike some others, are run exclusively by veterans or someone who has taken one of their training sessions, so the instructor will understand the military and the problems veterans have.
“Vets don’t jump at every chance. They need to trust people,” said Lovella Calica, founder and director of Warrior Writers. “Some people who come say they don’t have a vet community anywhere… We welcome them to the table and want to make people feel comfortable.”
At all the programs I’ve attended, the mood is nearly always the same. The classes are casual, informal, and eventually friendships are forged. There’s an initial reluctance to talk about PTSD and trauma until people are trusted. Eventually stories about drinking too much, drug abuse, insomnia, and guilt do begin to spill out.
Most of the classes are nearly all-male, because women make up only 15 percent of the armed services. I’m something of a third sex in the workshops, because while I’m a woman I’m also a veteran and so understand well the disconnect between the military and civilian lives. Men understand this and share intimate details about their lives with me that their male friends will never hear. And yet while I can and do connect easily with men who have served, there’s a boundary between us because they assume I can’t understand their experience as well as another man could. Other female veterans I know have run up against this perceived limitation and are often thrilled to encounter fellow women who have served. On the rare occasions when I meet a woman at a veterans’ event, I always hold my breath, hoping that she’s a veteran and not a spouse or family member.
Being around other veterans, whether or not they have served in the same conflict, is key to the workshops. Working with each other reawakens a sense of pride and belonging again to a unit with a shared mission. I am often asked why I’m there, because I’ve been a reporter for over fifteen years and shouldn’t need to attend a writing class. I keep going because I adore hanging out with veterans, hearing their stories, and feeling like I’m a member of a close-knit group again. As Capps put it, “You all speak the same language, you all took the same chances, you all became part of this 1 percent that stood up rather than the 99 percent that decided to sit this one out. This makes you a community.”
At a Warrior Writers class in Manhattan, I felt that sense of solidarity. A long table and folding chairs were set up in the middle of a yoga studio where about twenty-five veterans sat hunched over notepads, scribbling a response to the prompt “Write about the person you were before you joined the military and who you are now.” After fifteen minutes, people began to read their pieces, some in verse and some in prose. No one was trying to outdo one another or preening for attention like at some civilian writing classes. They were instead intensely personal and blunt. One Vietnam veteran discussed his battle with schizophrenia and suicide, another his life as a police officer with PTSD. “This is where I do my therapy,” said Eli, a former army medic who was deployed to Iraq. “I can’t write anywhere else but here.”
After the workshop, the instructor, Michael Day, told me he had been battling insomnia and depression, drinking, and doing drugs when he discovered Warrior Writers. VA physicians had prescribed eleven different medications to help him sleep, ease his nightmares, and make him less groggy. Seeing a VA therapist didn’t help much, and instead left him with horrible memories he didn’t know how to process. I had met Day, a former Marine, in 2011, when we both started attending the NYU Veterans Writing Workshop. He was often aloof and it seemed like something was troubling him. My attempts to chat with him then didn’t reveal much. I now marveled at how much he had changed. No longer was he morose and quiet: he was now smiling and effervescent. “I don’t feel like I started my recovery until I started writing,” he told me.
It was time to head to Capps’s workshop, and he and I walked out to his car. While we drove to the subway, he scanned the street and kept several car-lengths between us and other vehicles. He’s hyperaware of anything that could be remotely dangerous, from roadside trash to drivers who don’t signal. His hands tightened on the steering wheel when a driver ahead of us veered off to the right. While we were talking, he didn’t turn to look at me but stayed focused straight ahead.
Inside the subway station, a woman cut across his path going the wrong way. He swore about people who don’t follow the rules. To change the subject, I asked him about Africa and his time there. He gave a few halfhearted answers but was distracted by working through the rush-hour throngs. A few minutes later, he seemed to grow tired and sat down on a bench with his eyes closed. I asked if he was OK, waited a moment, and then offered to meet him later or to teach his class for him. I worried that I had asked him too much. He remained quiet for a minute, and then said, “It’s all good.”
An incoming train screeched. I moved away to give Capps more space; he took a long breath, stood up, and walked to the platform. It seemed he wanted to be alone to collect his thoughts, and I was quiet on the thirty-minute subway ride. We arrived early, and I left him alone to give him time to eat dinner by himself. As I was leaving the Thai restaurant, his wife called. “No, I’m OK,” I heard him say as I walked out.
When I met him an hour later, he didn’t mention what had happened earlier or how he was feeling, and I didn’t press him. After the quick walk to the former naval hospital where he taught, he seemed more confident, greeting the veterans by name and smiling broadly.
He clapped to get started. Today he would be teaching about point of view. Capps sprinkles his lectures with military and war references, and for this one he used examples ranging from the Trojan War to World War I to Vietnam. “You have to find a way as an author to choose what voice you use.” Is your narrator speaking from a foxhole? Or from the “eighty-thousand-foot, non-air-breather level, looking down on the world, omniscient?”
This was not the Capps of an hour ago. He gestured, winked, moved easily around, and at times walked right up to each student and asked questions directly. He had total command of the room.
There were five students that night, four men and one woman, all in their fifties and sixties. Some wanted to write a novel about their service, while others wanted to give their children or grandchildren a taste of their experiences. Tonight they would be discussing two of the students’ short stories. One was about an elderly veteran who kept secret his heroic rescue from a plane crash in World War II. The other was written by Paul Kozak, a barrel-chested man whose dog tags peeked out from under his shirt. Every week, he drove four hours from southern New Jersey to attend Capps’s class; he was working on a novel. This week, they were discussing his story about recovering in a hospital after his truck hit a land mine, burning 80 percent of his body, and the night a new patient was wheeled in. The man’s screams for mercy displaced, for the first time, Kozak’s own pain.
“One thing I gotta say,” said one of the students. “I was a patient in a ward like this. Nineteen sixty-seven… Nowadays the wards aren’t like that anymore. People don’t know what it’s like to have forty, fifty people in a ward and two or three die every night… You got it all in there.”
“What you’ve shown us is the power that your concern for another person has. You’ve shown us the humanity,” said Capps. “All of us in the military decided at some point to serve others; you joined the military to serve. And you’re in the hospital, you’re wounded, you’re out of the game, but you still show us that concern for a comrade in arms.”
The class broke up soon after. Capps was quick to leave and didn’t want to linger. He seemed relieved when I told him I would stay behind.
Recovering from trauma of any kind is a lifelong project. Therapy only teaches someone how to live with pain and prevent it from overwhelming and controlling their life. While writing helps many trauma victims, medication, talk therapy, and a support system are often just as crucial to helping them recover.
Successful rehabilitation programs are as myriad as the causes of trauma. Not one of the experts I’ve interviewed in the four years I’ve been writing about veterans knows why some people develop PTSD and others do not. There are indications that if a service member has a strong support system, whether that is family or friends, faith in a higher power, or a larger mission outside of themselves, whether that is a job or volunteer work, it is less likely that he will suffer from PTSD. Some veterans, though they develop a lasting emotional injury, learn how to adapt to it and even to thrive.
Writing can help veterans only if they are ready to face the source of their trauma and the nightmares, flashbacks, and guilt that can accompany it. Confronting those feelings instead of compartmentalizing them, part of military training, is vital to any improvement. My boyfriend, a former Green Beret who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, stopped going to the vets writing group where we met, and is growing more isolated. My efforts to convince him to return, to start working on the book he’s long wanted to write about his exploits, have instead been met with groans. Even though he is wracked by nightmares, avoids crowds, and asks me to case out a restaurant before we go inside, he tells me tidbits of his experiences only grudgingly, and clams up when I ask him why he moans in the middle of the night or why he occasionally walks around the house doing perimeter checks. I had hoped writing would allow him to make sense of his time downrange, like it did for Capps, but so far he seems to view it as a traumatic process that will only force him to relive it.
Capps, too, avoided his PTSD for nearly a decade, until he reached the point where he couldn’t function and nearly killed himself to end the terror. Writing hasn’t cured him; he still takes medication and sees a counselor to help navigate his days. The support of his wife, he says, has been integral to his recovery. Writing and helping veterans remain central to his well-being. “I wrote my way home,” he says. “When therapy wasn’t working, when the meds weren’t working, when the combination of the two wasn’t working, when drinking myself into a stupor because the meds weren’t working wasn’t working, what worked for me was writing.” His memoir, Seriously Not All Right: Five Wars in Ten Years, appeared last spring from Schaffner Press, and he is working on a novel set in Sudan. He travels around the country leading seminars near military installations for active-duty troops and wounded soldiers, and in rural areas where many veterans have little to no access to services. He says he’ll go wherever he is invited and wherever there is a need. Given the high suicide and joblessness rates, there will certainly be a need.
Even now, despite his success, his wife, and his army of supporters and friends, Capps still struggles. When I emailed him after our interview to thank him and ask some follow-up questions, he wrote that he’d realized he wasn’t as far along in his recovery as he thought he was, and it would be easier if we exchanged emails instead of talking again. It was still difficult for him to voice his feelings out loud. “I learn a little more about myself every day,” he wrote. “My recovery is a steeper climb than I thought, is all.”
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